Even against bad teams, playing behind an anemic offense is tantamount to playing with fire, and the Cardinal ended up singed - but not burnt - against Washington State.
Colorado trailed 55-10 at the half to Fresno State. That suggests that the Buffaloes are awful, but their 35-34 win at Washington State - the same team that just dominated Stanford in the yardage department - suggests that they're dangerous, particularly if the Cardinal struggle to score again. Here are the ingredients to a Stanford victory at altitude:
Prolong Colorado's Quarterback Instability
Buffaloes head coach Jon Embree had become so displeased with the play of starting quarterback Jordan Webb that he announced an open competition between the incumbent and sophomore Nick Hirschman this week at practice. Despite posting a slightly higher completion percentage (56.1) than Stanford's Josh Nunes (who, at 52.8, is last in that category), Webb is at the very bottom of the Pac-12 passer efficiency ranking (109.8).
Embree just announced that Webb will hold onto the starting reins Saturday, but it appears that both competitors may see opportunities under center. Of course, seeing Hirschman and Webb splitting snaps may mirror the situation on Stanford's side: sophomore Kevin Hogan is expected to man 12-20 plays at the quarterback position to pressure Nunes into improvement.
Unlike Colorado, though, the Cardinal have a defensive juggernaut capable of turning a quarterback controversy into an utter quarterback disaster. Buffalo quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times already this year, a figure that can balloon to an even uglier number once the Stanford front seven is finished with its work in Boulder. The Cardinal recorded a school-record 10 sacks against Washington State, and they'll certainly be looking to allow that record to stand for less than a week while throwing another "party in the backfield."
Stop the Run
To be fair, breaking last week's 10-sack record against Colorado will be very difficult, no matter how bad the Buffaloes are in pass protection. Unlike Washington State, Colorado actually has a semblance of the running game. When functioning, this can take some steam away from the Stanford pass rush.
Bruising running back Christian Powell, who attended the same high school as Nunes (Upland, CA), is a straightforward running back averaging almost 4.6 yards per carry. Tony Jones and Josh Ford have both spelled a good change of pace, racking up over five yards per carry in their 75 combined rushing touches.
The problem for Colorado is that their strength plays right into hands of the Stanford defense, which has stonewalled its last two opponents (Cal and Washington State) into negative six combined yards the ground. It's remotely possible that Cardinal will tire enough in Boulder's mile-high air to allow some ground success for Embree's club. After all, Stanford traveled less than 24 hours before kickoff, so the Farm Boys won't have much time to acclimate to the thinner air of the Rocky Mountains. Even then, it would take a major front seven letdown for the Cardinal to be gashed Saturday. The muscle difference between these two teams is marked.
Command a Semblance of Respect Downfield
Washington State mocked Stanford's passing attack, stacking defenders in the box and daring Nunes to throw last Saturday. The Cardinal couldn't take advantage of the Cougars' offer. Stepfan Taylor ended up having nowhere to run. He averaged only 2.8 yards per carry.
Shaw's announcement that Hogan will play 12-20 snaps almost certainly means that the sophomore will no longer be used exclusively in a Wildcat-like run package. He's going to have to rear back and show off that canon arm downfield. The accuracy to hit Levine Toilolo high and Zach Ertz in stride must be present from either him or Nunes to create some breathing room for Stanford's rushing attack.
The simple fact of the matter is that Colorado is surrendering 46 points per game. One of the Buffaloes' defensive lineman is a true freshman who began playing football his senior year of high school. In other words, a Stanford lack of offensive proficiency on Saturday would be ghastly.
"You guys will see in the next few years, we have an awful lot of depth at the quarterback position," Cardinal linebacker Alex Debniak said this week.
The time for that depth to shine comes a bit earlier than expected. It's needed right now.
"Great teams play great all the time," Debniak said, emphasizing that Colorado's puny play leading into this game is irrelevant to Stanford. "We were disappointed as a team last week."
Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA are looming. It's time to turn on the jets.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. HHe can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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